Cornish game hens don’t seem to rate much time in the limelight. When I first decided to experiment with cooking the birds sous vide-style, my husband, Dave, opined that “they’re too much bother for too little meat.” Undeterred, I thought their diminutive size might be ideal for the sous vide technique. Worth a try, at any rate. In order to ensure even cooking, I spatchcocked the hens.
Spatchcock is a wonderful culinary technique that involves removing the backbone and keel (breast) bone so the bird is opened up and it will lie flat. The technique is simple, and all you need is a good pair of sturdy kitchen shears. If you don’t own shears, rush right out to buy a pair and you’ll be delighted at how useful they are in the kitchen!
On my first trial, I rubbed the bird with fennel pollen and added some lemon juice, a pat of butter, and a few fresh tarragon sprigs to the bag. I cooked the hen at 145°F (63°C) for 90 minutes, then grilled it on a hot barbeque to crisp the skin. It was good, but not great. The dark meat was underdone, and I didn’t think the bird was particularly tender. My husband’s concern about the quantity of meat was unfounded, though. One bird (which weighed 1 pound, 6 ounces) was plenty for a single hearty eater.
On my second attempt, I brined one of the hens, thinking it would add moistness to the meat. At the same time, I prepared another bird without the brine. This time I rubbed the birds with a paste of garlic confit and preserved lemon, then liberally seasoned them with fennel pollen, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper. The water bath was set for 155°F (68°C) and I cooked the hens for 5 hours, followed by a few minutes on the grill to crisp up the skin.
Ah, what a difference! The meat was tender and juicy. I couldn’t discern a difference in taste or texture with the brined hen, so that’s one step I’ll eliminate next time. The fennel flavor was pervasive but not overwhelming. I reduced the juices in the bags and whisked in a couple of lumps of butter at the last minute, for a light, highly flavorful sauce. The game hens were excellent, and Dave couldn’t finish his bird (1 pound, 12 ounces). No more complaints from that quarter!
I’m crazy for fennel pollen, and think it’s fab with chicken, pork, lamb, and beef, not to mention fish. Recently I started harvesting the pollen from the tangle of wild fennel bushes that grows along roadsides and riverine areas all over California. When the flowers are deep yellow, I simply bend the stalks into a large paper bag and shake vigorously to dislodge the pollen. I then spread out the pollen on a tray and let it dry for a day or two, and seal it in a small container. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference between my wild harvested crop and the very expensive Italian import I usually buy. If fennel is not your thing, substitute whatever rub or combo of herbs that you like.
Serves 2 to 4
- Preheat the water bath to 155°F (68°C).
- Thoroughly wash the hens in cold water and pat them dry. Spatchcock the hens using kitchen shears. Set the hens on a large plate, cutting board, or a large piece of waxed paper.
- Mash the garlic confit with the preserved lemon to make a paste. Spread half of the paste on one of the birds, rubbing it on both the skin side and the meat (under) side. Repeat with the second hen. Sprinkle half of the fennel pollen on both sides of one of the birds and liberally season with salt and pepper. Repeat with the second hen.
- Place each hen in its own food bag and vacuum seal. Refrigerate the hens until the water bath is at temperature.
- Cook the hens for 5 hours. Remove the bags from the water oven and open them immediately, being careful to retain all of the cooking juices. Set the hens aside and let them rest for 10 to 15 minutes while you make the sauce. Pour the accumulated juices from the cooking bags into a small saucepan and reduce by half. Just before serving, whisk in one piece of the butter. When it has melted, whisk in the remaining piece. Keep the sauce warm.
- Meanwhile, heat a barbeque grill on high. Make sure the grill is very clean, to keep the delicate skin from sticking. Drizzle the skin side of the hens with a little bit of olive oil. Place the hens, skin side down, on the grill. Cook until the skin is crisp and golden, about 3 to 4 minutes. If desired, turn the birds over and cook another minute.
- To finish on the stovetop, heat a ridged cast-iron pan over high heat until very hot. Drizzle the hens with a little olive oil. Place the hens, skin side down, in the pan. Cook until the skin is crisp and golden, about 3 to 4 minutes. If desired, turn the birds over and cook another minute.
- Serve hot with the reduced cooking juices.